Death metal has seen its popularity rise and fall (in an underground sense) throughout the last couple of decades, but for musicians like Jason Netherton, the love for the sound never waned. Since forming Dying Fetus in the early '90s, the bassist/vocalist has flown the flag for death (and grind) over the course of a lengthy discography. After parting ways with Dying Fetus in 2001, Netherton started Misery Index, a grindy death metal act that has released five full-lengths and a handul of EPs and splits.
Netherton's latest project is Asphalt Graves, a band that finds him doing Harmony Corruption-era Napalm Death worship with musicians who have played in such bands as GWAR and The Black Dahlia Murder. I had the pleasure of interviewing Netherton and we went through his entire career, and also got to talk about his early love for MTV and the highly underrated Wrathchild America.
Tell me a bit about your upbringing.
I grew up in suburban Washington, DC. It was pretty normal, there was a neighborhood with all my friends, we played football, street hockey, set things on fire, tried to get ahold of Playboy magazine... stuff like that. The family was close, we all lived near each other—which was nice because I did not have any brothers or sisters. It was just me and my parents. They were not big music lovers, but they did play a lot of classical music, especially Beethoven. I think my dad would play the 9th Symphony what seemed like almost every evening, and some folk music as well. I remember them taking me to see Gordon Lightfoot when I was maybe 8.
At what point did music become important to you?
Once we got MTV in the house it opened up a window to all the new wave stuff, the metal, and everything else. I guess that broke me out of just looking to the Top 40 every week for music, which in the '80s was not that bad, actually. People laugh about it now, but it was very diverse then. You would have a lot of different popular music genres represented, and a lot of bands who actually had musicians in the band playing an instrument and writing their own songs like Prince, The Cars, Pat Benatar, etc. So, despite being mainstream, it was a good time for music overall in my view. However, metal is what grabbed me the most. It was of course the gateway bands first: Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Dio, and Dokken. Then it was on to thrash and speed metal. I guess once I heard Metallica and Megadeth, things became important, it became an everyday life thing, a passion and part of my identity.
What was your local music scene like?
By the late '80s, when I was old enough to finally get into a show, I remember seeing a lot of local thrash/speed metal bands. The big one in Maryland was called Wrathchild (later they became Wrathchild America, after a name battle with the UK Wrathchild). I remember that seeing them was the first time I got to see a band in a club, and not in an arena. It had a big impact because that was also the first time I tried moshing and experiencing metal more up close and personal. It was at a venue out in the country—surrounded by tobacco fields—in Maryland called Wilmer's Park, where all the local metal bands would play from southern Maryland, and a few big tours would come through as well (more by the early '90s). In the city we had venues like the Bayou and the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC where I saw bands like Death, Carcass, Sepultura, Obituary, Morbid Angel, and Entombed on tour in 1990 and '91.
What were some of the other local bands that you would go check out?
By the early '90s, I remember seeing local death metal bands like Deceased, Sadistic Torment, Corpus Rottus, Abominog, Exmortis, and even some cool thrash bands like Silence and Solitude, from Delaware.
Do you remember what the first death metal record you ever heard was?
I guess it would be Possessed's Seven Churches, but at the time they were not really called death metal, I don't think death metal really separated itself from the thrash/speed underground until about '88, '89. Considering that, I would say Death (Scream Bloody Gore or Leprosy), or it might have been Obituary (Slowly We Rot). Those albums were certainly "death metal," and when I heard them, even though it was not far from bands like Sacrifice and Dark Angel, I knew immediately there was just something "next level" about them.
Let's talk about Damnation, your first band. Believe it or not, I got your demo when it came out!
I really cannot see how you got that demo, since we only sent out maybe a few dozen to some zines?! [Editor's note: I used to do a zine at the time called Extremeties and possibly got it that way.] That was my high school band, which I started with John Gallagher (who I would later form Dying Fetus with). It was basically us and the drummer, Pete [Roper], and the guitarist/vocalist Brendan [Shea], and we did mostly Slayer/Iron Maiden/Megadeth covers for a few years before writing originals and getting the demo out in 1990. It was what was considered "power metal" then, kind of like the realm of Metal Church and Armored Saint, maybe? John and I eventually realized we were not playing music that we were actually that into anymore, as our tastes were 95% death metal by 1990, so the band dissolved and we went to work on what would be Dying Fetus right after.
So, when you started Dying Fetus, you already had a stylistic path you guys wanted to take.
John and I were looking to do the brutal stuff, and were heavily into bands like Suffocation, Baphomet, Broken Hope, and the like. From 1991 to the end of 1992, we only managed to find a second guitarist named Nick [Speleos], so eventually John started to do the drums until we found a drummer (John played drums and guitar on the first demo). Once we got a drummer by late 1993, we became a four-piece and refined the sound a bit and got a bit more technical. The rest is history.
A label you dealt with in the beginning was Wild Rags out of California. Ricardo Campos, the label owner of Wild Rags, is someone who was quite controversial in the underground metal scene. He was accused of ripping bands off. What was your experience like working with him?
We always heard about that back then as well. We were heavily into the tape trading and the fanzines and the pen pals, so you would always hear people crying about, "Wild Rags are rip-offs!" But by the time 1994 rolled around, things were changing in the underground. Death metal was oversaturated and a lot of bands were breaking up, and of course black metal was getting big. In short, it was hard to get an album out at that time as an underground band, so Richard C. actually was doing a lot to help the underground survive those kind of Dark Ages of the mid-'90s. If you look at the roster he had then, it's now full of what many are considered to be early classics from a lot of cult bands. [Editor's note: click this link for more info on that.] That said, I am not sure exactly who he may have ripped off/did not rip off, but he was always cool to us. He did what he said and it helped us get the music and the name out through the demo compilation CD [Infatuation with Malevolence] we eventually put out on Wild Rags in 1995.
What do you attribute the many lineup changes during the first few years of Dying Fetus to? You always managed to tour throughout all that stuff, even when you didn't have a proper label deal in place.
Well, we had some lineup changes, but they never were enough to completely shut things down. We went through one guitarist and three drummers from 1993 to 1998. We did do a lot of one-off shows, including (insanely) driving long distances to play single shows in front of only a few dozen people. For example, we did one from DC to Montreal and another one from DC to Illinois. We actually did not do our first U.S. tour until the summer of 1996 (with Kataklysm and Monstrosity). By that time, we had done so much work on our own in the underground that our name was known well enough to get on a tour like that even though we only had releases on small labels, or putting them out ourselves.
From my point of view, things started to really cook once you signed with Relapse Records in 2000 for your third album, Destroy the Opposition.
I would agree with that. I guess things started going with the 1996 tour, and the album we put out that year, Purification Through Violence. We then kept pushing the underground, and by then things online started bubbling up, until 1998, when we did Killing on Adrenaline and then did another U.S. tour with Deeds of Flesh, and our first European tour with Deranged in August of 1998. The work we did kind of reached a boil, and I guess it was around 2000 that extreme metal was suddenly becoming cool again, with the popularity of Slipknot, etc. So, the big independents started signing death metal again, and I guess Relapse saw an opportunity in us, because we already did all the groundwork, and we were about to step into our prime, especially with the addition of Kevin Talley on drums in 1998. He was a real game-changer for us and allowed us to really write and play anything we wanted.
Why did you part ways with Dying Fetus in 2001? It would seem that the band was finally firing on all cylinders when it came to the label stuff and the touring opportunities.
I kind of reached a burnout point after a (near) six-month straight tour cycle in 2000. One day I woke up and was just not feeling it anymore. I cannot explain it as a rational choice, but I was feeling pressure from one direction where I was trying to finish my MA, and from another direction I was getting more into other kinds of extreme music, and felt a bit limited by what we had become where—after a nearly 10-year run—a kind of Dying Fetus songwriting template or formula set in. We did it well and I loved it, but I guess I just wanted something new at that point.
I remember when it was announced that you were starting Misery Index and being very excited because you named it after an Assück album! Was that something you did to set the tone of what you guys were going to be doing on a stylistic level?
Yes, kind of like as I mentioned, I was really, really getting into the grind and hardcore punk at the time, where bands like Nasum and His Hero is Gone to me would sound so pissed off and ripping, yet it seemed more sincerely angry (in a non-fantasy way... or more where death metal was). The lyrics were always more interesting to me as well. So it was also something that set the tone and maybe showed me that there were different ways to demonstrate angry, violent music that was just as powerful as death metal... it brought me back to why I originally liked bands like Assück, Terrorizer, and old Napalm Death, I guess.
An aspect of Misery Index's sound that I don't think gets talked about enough is how your later material keeps a sense of melody weaved throughout certain songs, even though the writing is still rooted in grindcore and death metal.
I think we always sought to have that element in the music, even in the early days. Back when we were writing Retaliate in 2003, we were heavily into Tragedy and the really dark melodies that they and some bands like Wolfpack were doing in hardcore punk, so we tried to mix that with death/grind to an extent, and it really carried over to the Dissent EP in 2004. When [guitarist] Mark [Kloeppel] and [drummer] Adam [Jarvis] joined the band in 2005, we had even more ideas and input, and Mark especially has a keen sense of melody, which I think stems from his admiration of bands like Edge of Sanity and Emperor, and which adds even more to the plate when we songwrite these days—like the "Urfaust" piece he wrote for the last album (The Killing Gods).
How long can you picture doing Misery Index on a full-time basis? I would think seeing bands like Napalm Death and Discharge still out there touring is pretty inspiring.
Actually, we are not really full-time now, and have not been since 2011. Things happened on a personal level with a few of us concerning work and family, and we kind of reeled in the touring a bit and take longer to write now. Adam is busy with other bands, too; so while we are far from being on some kind of hiatus, we are active enough to keep it fun, play maybe 30 shows a year or so, etc.
What's the story behind Quills, a project you were part of for a few years back in the '00s?
That was kind of like the guitarist Danny's [Porter] project. He was in the hardcore band Ruiner. He wrote everything and then we tracked it together. We did a few shows in the Baltimore area, and it kind of was always just a project thing. It had Evan [Harting] on vocals (who does the Maryland Deathfest, and who is now in Putrisect) and Chris Csar on drums (who is from Swarm of the Lotus). We did another EP in 2011, but I doubt if anything else is going to happen with it at this point.
We're finally up to Asphalt Graves, a new band you started with Shannon Lucas (ex-The Black Dahlia Murder), Adam Faris (ex-War Torn), and Brent Purgason (GWAR). From the first few seconds of listening to The New Primitive album, I knew it was going to be a fun ride. The stuff could have come out on Earache Records circa 1991!
Yes, it is inspired very much by the '90s death/grind we know and love (hence the Nasum cover). Actually, Adam and Shannon had it all done a few years ago, and were trying to find a vocalist that would "fit" it when they contacted me in 2014 about singing on it. I actually said no at first because I was already crushed with things on my plate, then I gave it another listen and it grabbed me, so I called them back and said, "Let's do it!" In the meantime, they called up Brent and asked him to track bass on it, while I wrote the lyrics and finished up my vocal tracks.
Again, aside from the endless barrage of sick guitar riffs on the album, I love the hookiness of everything. That's something I feel modern death metal lacks in most cases.
Yes, those were the same hooks that drew me to the project. (Thanks, Adam!) I think the death metal of the early '90s was very much still in the heavy metal songwriting mold, where the focus was on writing riffs that the rest of the band (drums, vocals, etc.) would then follow or build around. As death metal fragmented into more subgenres and experimentation, that kind of traditional riff-centric approach began to get sidelined. Of course it did not disappear, but it's no longer a dominant form. Now it seems like it shares the field with different approaches like creating a mood or a haunting feeling, dissonance, layering, or displaying some virtuosity.
How did you guys go about writing the material together since you live in different cities?
Adam and Shannon wrote it in Richmond, VA together, so it's pretty much their baby. Brent also lives in Richmond, and I was living in Ontario at the time, so I just tracked my vocals at a studio there, and it was then all mixed back in Richmond.
You probably could have signed with several of the bigger metal indies to release the Asphalt Graves album, but you went with Vitriol Records, a very cool yet smaller label, which is owned by Justin Smith of Graf Orlock. Why did you decide to go with him?
Honestly, we did not really look around that much. I asked a few people at some labels I knew, but then I was put in touch with Justin and Vitriol, and after some back and forth we decided it was the way to go for a release like this—a smaller label with a more direct and longer push in the underground. To us, it seems like a better fit. So far, it's been fantastic.
What's the plan for Asphalt Graves beyond the album?
We are going to see how the response is, and then take it from there. If there is interest, we can play shows if the schedules all align. We are also taking steps to begin work on a second album, or at least get some riffs written. Again, it's the riffs!
Earlier this year, I finally read your book, Extremity Retained: Notes From the Death Metal Underground, and I can't recommend it enough to people who are my age that were part of that world back in the early '90s. It's seriously a great read. Do you have any plans of writing a book again?
Thanks! I do not have plans, because I am presently busy with other things, but I am open to it, if I feel like I can contribute to something in some way. Maybe a death metal children's book is due [laughs].
From a personal standpoint, what's been the biggest highlight of your musical career to date?
I guess there are a few that have special meaning for the different phases of life. I feel like with Dying Fetus it would have to be playing the 1998 Milwaukee Metalfest. We did not know what it was going to be like, because we were playing against Emperor that night, but then we started and the room filled in, packed, and everyone went crazy. In the end the audience tore down the barrier in front of the stage and everyone came on up. It was a great feeling... like we "made it" somehow, all on our own terms. With Misery Index, a highlight was this really long run we did in 2006 called the "Steers and Beers" tour, it was over six weeks with a really mixed bill of bands like Cattle Decapitation, Job for a Cowboy, and Animosity. It was just the most fun I ever had—we were partying, camping, laughing, and getting along with everyone the whole time, and every show was packed. As far as musically, I think our last album, The Killing Gods, is the album I am really happy to have been a part of. I think it represents a big step forward for us, especially in terms of songwriting and maturity.